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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 5:55 pm, 25th March 2019

I warmly applaud what was just said by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.

I shall shock the Government Front Bench by saying that I rather like the Prime Minister’s Statement. I found three things in it that seem to be the beginning of wisdom. The Prime Minister says that,

“as things stand, there is still not sufficient support … for a third meaningful vote”.

She said that the House has “expressed its opposition” to no deal and,

“may very well do so again”,

and she said that,

“the bottom line remains, if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, and is not prepared to countenance leaving without a deal we will have to seek a longer extension”.

Those three propositions are all true and one should welcome this dose of reality.

If I were going to be pompous, I would say that what has gone wrong in the past three years—I hope everybody has rejected the idea of my being pompous—is that we have forgotten that the Executive are responsible to Parliament. It has been the rule down the years that a Government who cannot sell their principal policies to Parliament change the policies or make way for another Government. Since Walpole’s time, the principle of Cabinet solidarity has been that if you do not agree with the policy of the majority in the Cabinet, you leave the Cabinet and you shut up. The third principle is that at times of national crisis, the national interest overrides the party interest. A Narvik brings out a Churchill, a Churchill brings in an Attlee and a national consensus is sought. We come together. None of those three principles has been applied in full in the past three years. Indeed, they seem to have been flouted.

It is a pity that there was no national debate, or at least a debate with Parliament or within the Cabinet, about what Brexit meant—and what form of Brexit one should be aiming for and how. To set out those red lines at a party conference with no prior discussion in this House or the other place was a mistake. Keeping Parliament in the dark during the negotiations was a mistake. The Minister had to tell us again and again that he was not allowed to give us a running commentary. I am sure he found that painful; I found it painful to hear it. It would have been better to have a discussion about the process; the product might not then have come as such a surprise. It was then a mistake to pull the product out of the House of Commons for two months, not allowing the meaningful vote, and it was probably a mistake to go on pressing it after the massive failure of the first meaningful vote.

On Cabinet solidarity, it was a mistake to make the deal the Prime Minister’s deal and not the Cabinet’s deal or the Government’s deal. That was not wise. Letting the principle of collective responsibility lapse has proved self-defeating. Threatening hard leavers with no Brexit and soft leavers or remainers with no deal has produced the effect of isolating the Prime Minister in a very worrying way.

What about country before party and reaching out? I was on the march. We marched past Downing Street and we called on the Prime Minister to think again. How did she react? As has been said, she summoned the ERG to Chequers. I do not know why she always moves right at a moment of decision. This morning, we see what I suppose must be the ERG manifesto, in Mr Johnson’s column in the Telegraph, which has some rather odd aspects to it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said. Mr Johnson says two things. First, we must,

“come out of the EU now—without the backstop”.

So it is no deal: a customs frontier across Ireland, forget about the Belfast agreement and forget about the peace process. I think that is irresponsible.

Secondly, he says:

“Extend the implementation period to the end of 2021 if necessary; use it to negotiate a free-trade deal”.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, no agreement —no deal—means no implementation period. It means also that our trade with our biggest market is instantly no longer free, and rollovers of existing EU trade deals with third countries become hugely more difficult and rather unlikely. This is instant economic disruption. This is what the Chancellor calls catastrophic. Avoiding this is now paramount, as the CBI and the TUC rightly said, last week. They believe that an Article 50 extension and a new approach are required. No more “my way or the highway”. Some 85% of CBI member companies apparently think that an Article 50 extension is better than no deal. I am not surprised, given the Government’s own economic analysis of no deal.

Those views of the CBI and the TUC were pretty well represented at the European Council by President Tusk and Chancellor Merkel. They do not want no deal; they know how damaging no deal would be to them and how much more damaging such an outcome would be to us. It seems that our Prime Minister was still arguing then—though today’s Statement is a little different—that there was only a binary choice for the United Kingdom: her deal or no deal. It seems that she was evasive when pressed on the chances of her deal being approved. She seems to me to be honest today in her Statement. She refused to countenance any plan B, and I think the European Council concluded that she did not have one. It was her counterparts in the European Council who ensured that the conclusions mean that, as President Tusk said afterwards,

“anything is possible: a deal, a long extension if the United Kingdom decided to rethink its strategy, or revoking Article 50, which is a prerogative of the UK government”.

The ball is now in our court and we have, at last, to rise to the level of events. What we need is time to stop and think. I do not believe that the European Council would have difficulty agreeing to a substantial Article 50 extension, provided we satisfy the Council’s only condition, which was that we should be able to “indicate a way forward”. I do not believe that that way forward need be very detailed or specific—indeed, it would not be. After 1,000 days of no national debate, it would be crazy suddenly to try to produce a new answer in a fortnight. What we need to indicate—I think this would be sufficient—is that, at long last, a process to decide the future is being set in train. Here, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Bridges: if Brexit is to go ahead, we need a process to decide the best balance of autarkic sovereignty and common purpose, and of independent action and identifying mutual interest. I think the noble Lord put it better than I have, but that is the dilemma: finding that balance, and a process to determine whether, after at long last a genuine, and genuinely informed, national debate, Brexit should go ahead or whether our Article 50 notification should be withdrawn—in either case, with full democratic authorisation. The broken, blindfold Brexit that we have blundered into results from a flawed process, which broke with our basic constitutional principles—but it is not too late to put that right.

The spectacle of the European Council last week was shaming. We saw a Prime Minister lurking in an empty room while 27 colleagues tried to help her find a way out of the corner she had painted herself into; we saw a haggard Prime Minister, unable to stay on to participate in the Council’s debate on probably the most significant issue of our time: western democracy’s relationship with China. For Britain to be silent—for Britain to be absent from such a debate—is shocking. A good test, at moments of difficult decisions, is to ask oneself what Peter Carrington would have thought and done, supposing he were in the Cabinet today. When, on the last day of January, we remembered him in the Abbey— with the help of the noble Lords, Lord Luce and Lord Carrington; with the Grenadiers’ “Slow March” and “Nimrod”; with memories of Nijmegen; with memories of Carrington alongside Kissinger and Schmidt; and memories of Carrington as Secretary-General of NATO—we remembered someone who deeply believed in the European Union, for precisely the reasons so brilliantly explained in Parliament Square on Saturday by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. He believed deeply that this country mattered, that we had a vocation and that we should make sure our voice was heard. He was someone whose voice certainly was heard, who understood parliamentary democracy and the need to put country before party and honour before ambition, and who knew what to do when something went wrong.

Our friends in 27 countries have thrown us a lifeline, provided that we can “indicate a way forward”—the phrase in the Commission’s text—which could, and I hope will, mean ourselves by 12 April to a process to seek a national consensus on a negotiable outcome. I hope we will: better late than never.